RETIRED BUREAUCRAT HARPAL SINGH, 90, and his wife Amrit Kaur, 80, have spent the last 32 years of their life in a simple white house with a blue fence in Chandigarh’s Sector 11. The area is flanked by Madhya Marg, one of the city’s landmark roads, though many locals identify it as a part of Geri Route—a parallel avenue running through Sectors 9, 10, and 11—where Chandigarh’s hippest hang out. Singh’s house, near a gurdwara and a government-run girls’ college, is a world away from Geri Route’s bling and bluster. Inside the house things are soothingly understated, turn-of-the-century. The carpets are beige. The silver-framed family pictures, on the walls and glass-topped wooden cabinets are black and white. Yellow flowers in a glass vase, contrasting with a sleek red American radiator, add a splash of colour.
Amrit, benign in a pastel salwar suit and polka-dotted chiffon chunni, is of a piece with the setting. There is a pleasant ordinariness about her—startling if you are told that she is a bona fide princess, and the victor in a furious battle over an inheritance worth roughly Rs 20,000 crore.
She is Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur, the eldest daughter of Raja Harinder Singh Brar Bans Bahadur, ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Faridkot in Punjab. Harpal Singh, the man she has been married to since 1952, was her father’s aide-de-camp, and he already had a wife and children when she fell in love with him. All of 19, the princess decided to start a life with Singh, a commoner, breaking a sacred class taboo. Stung by the betrayal of his favourite child, the raja cut her out of his will and the family estate.
Harinder Singh’s diktat was made public after his death in 1989. Since then, Amrit has been locked in a tussle with younger sister Deepinder Kaur Mehtab, who manages the estate with son Jaichand on behalf of the Maharawal Khewaji (MK) Trust formed under the will. (The king’s only son, Kanwar Harmohinder Singh, a.k.a ‘Prince David’, died in 1981, while a third daughter, Maheepinder Kaur, passed away in 2001.) In a July 2013 judgment, responding to a civil suit lodged by Amrit in 1992 claiming fraud, a Chandigarh court declared the will—and the trust—null and void, granting both sisters equal share in the estate.
But the elder princess’s triumph was short-lived: Barely a month after the judgment, Deepinder managed a stay, while she takes the battle to higher courts. Deepinder says she wants to preserve the trust because it was part of her father’s last wishes—although she is guaranteed a personal windfall if the trust were to be scrapped and the money divided. Amrit, on the other hand, has no qualms about admitting that she wants her share of the property. “I’m the eldest daughter,” she asserts. “Why shouldn’t I be entitled to what’s fair?”
Given its roots in Indian royalty, the world’s media leapt at the story of the two fighting princesses, projecting it as a fairytale gone sour. But their accent so far has almost entirely been on the fabulous wealth at stake. Fortune India’s investigations, including exclusive interviews with all parties involved, reveal that this is a story that transcends mere money, led by two women fighting for control over an intensely patriarchal legacy, one that was perhaps never fully theirs to begin with.
To be sure, the sisters are not the only players in this story. After the judgment, the king’s nephew Kanwar Bharatinder Singh, aka ‘Maxie’, lodged a cross-appeal based on agnatic primogeniture (or the Salic law under which royal inheritance is passed to collateral male relatives in the absence of male children). Amrit challenged this, since the king had been survived by his own children. She also claimed that primogeniture violates the principles of equality enshrined in the Indian Constitution, invoking the Hindu Succession Act, which transfers property rights to the children of the deceased. The court rejected Bharatinder’s appeal.
The Mehmuana family, descendents of the Brars, also decided to press for a share. Four members of the family are inducted as trustees in the MK Trust on a rotational basis. A present trustee, Gurdeep Inder Singh, claims to possess a version of the will which says they also have a right in the property, though its antecedents and details are sketchy.
The bounty dispensed by the will explain the claims and counterclaims. At stake are properties, forest plantations, orchards, apartments, quarters, bungalows, forts, palaces, towers, private hangars, ancestral jewellery, diamonds and other precious stones, and vintage cars including a midnight blue 1947 Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, an Alvis, a Ford Galaxie, and three Jaguars. The wealth extends beyond Faridkot, crisscrossing Hissar, Ambala, Chandigarh, Gurgaon, Shimla, New Delhi, and faraway Hyderabad.
Most of the assets translate to large fortunes. Faridkot House, for example, is built on 14 acres of prime land in New Delhi’s Copernicus Marg and is appraised at upwards of Rs 1,500 crore. The building has been leased out by the trust to the National Green Tribunal, bringing in a yearly rent of nearly Rs 6 crore, set to be revised to approximately Rs 20 crore. Another New Delhi property, located at 1 Nyaya Marg, just behind the U.S. Embassy, is spread over an acre and valued at Rs 500 crore or more, depending on the kind of development it’s used for. Apart from all these immovable assets, the trust also has Rs 40 crore in cash sitting on its books.
FARIDKOT IS A THRIVING agricultural town some 50 km from the Pakistan border. The place is named after Baba Farid—a 12th-century Sufi mystic who preached renunciation, and whose shrine in the town square still attracts believers. In trivia books, it’s mentioned as the hometown of former Indian President Giani Zail Singh.
Part of a district of the same name, once called Firozpur, it is home to a population of a little over a hundred thousand. Signs of economic health abound. There are no beggars or urchins on the streets, and life mimics the peaceful rhythm of the town’s vast fields of paddy, wheat, and kinnow oranges.
Faridkot was already an established settlement by 1763, when Chief Sardar Hamir Singh Brar partitioned it from the state of Kot Kapura. In 1808, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh empire, led his soldiers past the Sutlej river and into Faridkot, he faced little or no resistance because of his reputation. His garrisons from Lahore replaced those of Gulab Singh, Faridkot’s ruler at the time. But the British government didn’t quite approve of Ranjit Singh’s expanding conquests and made him withdraw his forces a year later.
The British reinstated Gulab Singh, who ruled Faridkot for close to two decades before he was murdered. It’s widely believed that Gulab Singh’s younger brother organised his assassination, after which his 4-year-old son Attar Singh was placed on the throne. Attar Singh died a child, passing on the reins to Pahar Singh, who remained king till 1849, when he was succeeded by his son Wazir Singh.
Like his father and others before him, Wazir Singh was a loyal ally of the British, fighting for them during the second Anglo-Sikh War. During the 1857 uprising, he arrested several insurgents and handed them over to the British, earning a promotion to an 11-gun salute from the earlier seven.
When Harinder Singh Brar—the last legitimate hereditary ruler of Faridkot—ascended to the throne (he formally became king in 1918, at the age of 3), he had to master the ancestral art of managing principalities with a mix of firm-handedness and benevolence. Locals who knew him say that leaving aside his peccadilloes, the king was a far-sighted and able administrator. Henry Mehtab, the king’s younger son-in-law and scion of the erstwhile royal family of Burdwan in West Bengal, says one of his biggest achievements was ensuring that not a single Muslim in his state died in the riots after Independence. “All of them were given safe carriage to Pakistan,” Mehtab claims.
The king also set up hospitals, modernised farming, and focussed on strengthening the state’s education system by offering scholarships, opening primary schools, and starting a college that gave out degrees in agriculture and commerce.
Jashkaran Singh, Amrit’s son, says the king was also renowned for his frugal habits. Unlike most royals, he was neither a heavy drinker, gambler, or profligate spender. “At his parties,” says a local, “he would actually count how many drinks the guests consumed.”
Mehtab remembers other streaks of eccentricity. The king once showed him a dozen Patek Philippe wristwatches he’d owned for years. “They were all there sitting new in their boxes, all exactly the same,” he recounts, “None of them had ever been worn.”
But among all his traits, Harinder Singh’s defining legacy could well be the skill with which he, in Mehtab’s words, “managed his lower-level and upper-level contacts across the army and the bureaucracy with equal dexterity, unlike many others of his ilk who just got plain lazy”. Rumour has it that this savvy helped Singh get friendly with Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India between 1943 and 1947, credited with designing the secret ‘Breakdown Plan’—a blueprint for the British government’s withdrawal from India.
Today, the Faridkot Fort (Quila Mubarak)—stretching over 10 acres in the heart of the town, and housing half-a-dozen palatial structures—stands testimony to an era that ended with Harinder Singh. Designed European-style, the fort has 20-foot-high ramparts, and its walls are built of small Nanakshahi (Mughal-style) bricks and lime mortar. A signpost at the entrance warns trespassers of prosecution. It also serves as a reminder that this is now the territory of the MK Trust.
DEEPINDER, CHAIRPERSON OF the MK Trust, lives in a first-floor flat in a building flanked by a man-made lake and Ashoka trees in Kolkata’s posh Alipore neighbourhood. It is a modern-style apartment built in the late 1950s, with spacious rooms and big windows designed to keep cool without air conditioning. There’s a study where she spends a lot of time, and a small gurdwara where she prays. Like at her elder sister’s house, the furniture is mostly functional, turn-of-the-century, and barring a picture or two of her father in his regalia, there’s no obvious evidence of royalty.
But Deepinder, 77, betrays little other similarity with her elder sister. She likes the outdoors, is an avid golfer, and a regular at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club. A woman of few words, she says she doesn’t care about the proceeds or her share of the estate if the properties were to be developed or liquidated. Does she believe that her elder sister is simply fighting for what is rightfully hers? She sounds dismissive: “She [Amrit] has decided she wants the property. That’s all there is to it.”
The relationship between the two remained cordial even after Amrit’s ouster from the estate. (Amrit says Deepinder is still welcome at her home.) But things went rapidly downhill when their youngest sister Maheepinder died at the age of 57. Maheepinder wasn’t married and lived by herself in a house in the trust’s 40-acre Mashobra estate in Shimla. She suffered from deep-vein thrombosis, which led to her death. Amrit didn’t buy that story. Suspecting foul play, she ordered an investigation and a post-mortem. “I just couldn’t come to terms with her passing and didn’t think it was natural,” she says.
Deepinder says it was a travesty for Amrit to have ordered the “cutting up of her sister’s body”. “She did that when my aunt died as well,” she says. “If you are like that with your family, then it’s hard to stay in touch.” Ultimately, the post-mortem did not find anything abnormal.
The wedge between the sisters has been driven deeper now by the public wrangle over the estate. The first time Harinder Singh wrote a will was on March 11, 1950, but this was revoked on May 22, 1952, after Amrit married Harpal Singh. The king devoted a single curt statement to the new arrangement: “This new will has been necessitated by the fact that I do not want to leave any property by will in favour of my daughter Rajkumari Amrit Kaur Sahiba.” The revised one-pager equally allocated Rs 12 lakh (about Rs 500 crore today) in savings bonds, securities, and deposits from three different bank accounts, along with four flats in New Delhi, to Deepinder and Maheepinder.
Then, in April 1955, the king set up a registered trust deed through which he allocated £90,000 (Rs 20.54 crore today accounting for inflation) for his son and £90,000 collectively for all three daughters, with instruction for them to receive interest income arising from their deposits, points out A.C. Kar, an advocate in Kolkata who works with the Mehtabs.
At this point, there was still no mention of the estate’s complete wealth, and, as the extended list of properties in the disputed 1982 will shows, the endowments handed to the daughters in 1952 barely scratched the surface. The king presumably intended the biggest chunk of the estate to be passed on to heir apparent Harmohinder. But the prince’s untimely death jolted his succession plans. Despondent at the snapping of the Brar bloodline, he wrote another, final, will in 1982, this one consigning everything to the MK Trust’s supervision. The daughters were thus practically excluded from the inheritance, but in a deft manoeuvre, the king named Deepinder chairperson and Maheepinder—who was alive at the time—vice chairperson of the trust, for life. After them, the trust was to be run by their “senior most male descendant”, in rotation, with the proviso that Maheepinder also marry into a royal family. Amrit was ignored.
Her legal team now alleges that this will is fraudulent. They contend that it was “manufactured” on blank sheets of paper, after getting the king’s signature on them. A major plank of their argument is that following his son’s death, the king was distraught and not mentally fit to have devised a will on his own. They point out the dubious inclusion of a certain Brijinder Pal Singh—a part of the king’s inner circle—as both a witness to and beneficiary of the will. Bharatinder says that the king had become reclusive after his son’s death. “He was prone to drinking more than normal and constantly surrounded himself with a small coterie of servants and locals.”
Though Deepinder refutes these theories, the court took cognisance of several loopholes in the will in its judgment favouring Amrit. First, it indicated that the will created a private trust in perpetuity, which isn’t permissible under law. It also identified a few grey areas: For instance, there are no provisions as to how the trust’s surplus income is to be used. It was also unclear which witnesses were present, whether Singh actually signed the documents, and if those who were present unduly influenced him. More significantly, the court ruled that the defendants were unable to prove that Singh did really execute the will in his lifetime.
There are allegations of murkier discrepancies. The prosecution pointed out that the signing witnesses used light blue and dark blue ink, respectively, before the will was registered. However, their signatures during the registration appear in black ink. This contravenes general practice that wills are attested by the same pens when they are attested and registered. There were also spelling mistakes, considered uncharacteristic of the king. There have also been questions about the delay in the will being produced after the king’s death (though this can be explained by the time taken for his last rites and the mandatory period of mourning).
Divyakant Mehta, a senior real estate lawyer based in Mumbai, says that for a court to reject a will outright means that there are substantial question marks over its authenticity. “Remember this was no ordinary will,” he says, “it was that of a former ruler.” He points to the virtual exclusion of the king’s wife, Maharani Narinder Kaur, who died in April 1986, to justify the suspicion around it: The will allotted the queen a meagre yearly allowance of Rs 36,000 and lifetime use of the 1 Nyaya Marg property. “No maharaja would exclude his wife to that degree, unless they were separated,” Mehta argues.
Meanwhile, the stay obtained by Deepinder means that the trust remains in effect. The will decrees that all income from the trust be used to maintain the Faridkot Fort and related buildings. The Surajkot Fort in Manimajra and other related properties can be developed into hotels, flats, or shops, if and when finance is available. All family jewellery and heirlooms should be kept intact and displayed in a museum, either in Faridkot Fort or a suitable facility in Delhi. There is also an instruction to convert the family-run Raja Balbir Hospital into a full-fledged, modern nursing home.
So far, the trust hasn’t been able to execute any of this. The hospital does provide subsidised health checks—Jaichand Mehtab says it has treated some 3 million patients to date—but it’s not a modern facility by any stretch. The jewellery museum hasn’t taken off either. The family heirlooms—bracelets, necklaces, turban accessories with emeralds the size of pigeon’s eggs, marble-sized diamonds, and other assorted knick-knacks—lie in the vaults of Standard Chartered Bank in Mumbai, under court orders following Amrit’s plea, since the will hadn’t been probated then (probating is the legal process by which a will is proved valid or invalid). The forts and palaces are mostly in disrepair, but Mehtab claims that the interiors of the Shisha Mahal in the Faridkot Fort have been restored. Fortune India could not independently verify this.
Following the July 2013 judgment, Deepinder ordered the trust to clamp down on all the properties, restricting access to the public. When Fortune India visited the Faridkot Fort, guards refused to open the gates. The Raja Balbir Hospital also declined our request for a photo shoot. At the Raj Mahal Palace, a 40-room, French-style building, guards again denied access. The closed doors are a recent phenomenon, says Bharatinder, because Deepinder “is scared of losing control of the estate”. He says she has also stopped visiting him since he filed a counterclaim for a share of the estate. (He continues to be in touch with Amrit.)
But Deepinder is holding firm to what she thinks is right. She spends four months a year at Faridkot, giving warm clothes to the poor and feeding people on auspicious days. “It’s an open house,” she says. Why doesn’t she just accept the court ruling and use her share of the estate for the common good of Faridkot? “I’m not the owner of anything,” she responds. “I’m only the caretaker.”
As the chairperson of the trust, Deepinder is only entitled to a salary “not less than Rs 1,200”, but her apparent detachment from the money at stake has also attracted disapproving murmurs: Relatives who do not wish to be named claim that the benevolent caretaker stance is an easy one for Deepinder to adopt, because, unlike her elder sister, she is already married into royalty and doesn’t really need the money. Further, given the vast acreage of land and other real estate included in the estate, and the vagueness in the will about how the income from them is to be used, it is impossible to verify where the trust’s wealth really ends up.
DID AMRIT EVER think that the choices she made would lead to where things are now?
After the tumult of all these years, it is difficult for her to answer that, though she does admit that her father was disappointed with her and declined to attend her wedding. He remained incommunicado for several years and didn’t attend her children’s weddings either. But the children (Jashkaran and Gurveen) defend their grandfather, pointing out that he missed the functions as he was indisposed and injured, respectively. (The latter was the result of a freak trident attack by a vagrant sadhu, who became violent when the king asked him to vacate the royal grounds.)
Mehtab reminisces that the king was very fond of Amrit as well as Harpal Singh, his most trusted security advisor, who was even sent to Scotland Yard for training. “In a sense, they were his two most favourite people until she eloped with him,” he says.
Amrit’s affair with an employee not only dashed the king’s hopes of broadening his alliances (predictably he’d wanted her to marry some royal) but also came as a personal affront. A Faridkot lady who knew the Maharaja but declined to be named says, “He was against second marriages in his state.” But the king’s disgruntlement with his firstborn did mellow with time. “Later, my father and I spoke again, and he even wrote letters to me,” Amrit says. There’s evidence of that.
The descendants of Amrit and Deepinder have taken care to not let their parents’ disputes affect their relationships with each other. Nisha Kehr, Deepinder’s eldest daughter, lives in New Delhi and is in touch with all her cousins, seeing them on and off. Jaichand Mehtab echoes the same attitude, unhesitatingly calling cousin Jashkaran a “nice guy”. The overwhelming feeling we got from everyone in the family is that they want to bury the hatchet now and settle the matter outside court—but Deepinder won’t budge, at least for now.
Back at Amrit and Harpal Singh’s home in Chandigarh, in the corner of a coffee table lies a silver paan box, emblazoned with the royal family’s coat of arms. The family motto in the Punjabi script reads “palan chatta phade”. Loosely translated, it’s a reference to a legend from the court of Emperor Akbar. When two rivals warring over land approached him for justice, his solution was that the chieftain’s turban be split in two exact halves, symbolically asking them to be content with their own shares of the province. Hundreds of years later, that’s the drama the princesses of Faridkot may find themselves re-enacting.